Beware the Silver Bullet

The U.S. Air Force Museum's Japanese Zero is on display under the wing of the B-18A in the museum's Air Power Gallery.

Churchill described the Soviet Union as a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. The serial Japanese airpower blunders during World War II are more aptly compared to the layers of an onion, one tightly encasing another. The mistakes vary in size and scope from the catastrophic (the attack on the United States) to the banal (inter-service rivalries). Among the manifold errors are two events which the Japanese interpreted as positive and caused them to reply on a silver bullet air force. They were in fact major mistakes, linked by complacence and ineptitude, and just possibly useful in teaching our nation some lessons today.

The first of these linked errors was the conclusion Japan drew from its initial successes in aerial warfare. In China, its fighters ruled the skies and its land-based bombers flew long distances to wreak havoc on helpless cities. The second was the creation of several outstanding new aircraft that the decision makers believed put the ultimate sharp edge on aerial capability.

By September, 1941, these two developments convinced Japanese leaders that the Imperial Japanese Naval Air Force (IJNAF) was at a peak. They decided to gamble that a devastating attack on the United States would result in a short, victorious war. As things turned out, the gamble led not to victory but total defeat.

The Preconditions
The seeds of the Japanese plunge into disaster lay in its 1890 Meiji Constitution which placed the Army and later the Navy on a level equal to that of the civil government, with all three reporting to the Emperor. The twentieth century saw an ascendant military culture coerce the civil government to approve its adventures. The almost psychopathic pride in Japan’s military prowess prevented its leaders from understanding just how strong its potential opponents were in terms of population and industrial capacity.

The unwarranted confidence stemmed in great part from Japan’s decisive defeat of Russia in the 1904/05 war. The victory accelerated Japan’s rapid transformation from an isolated nation, beset by internal strife, to a major player in the international arena. This advance was aided by massive infusions of technology from Europe, which provided modern arms for Japan’s Army, Navy and, most particularly, future air forces.

The Japanese were excellent students, able to absorb the information from foreign sources, tailor it to their own needs, and then produce the product—battleships, artillery, aircraft, instruments—indigenously. They did so well that it took only from 1911 to 1936 for their aircraft industry to go from building pseudo-Farman biplanes to creating world class aircraft.

Despite Japan’s growing military might, its leaders felt threatened by the traditional Anglo-American dominance of commerce and natural resources. They tried to strengthen their nation’s industrial base by invading Manchuria and creating the puppet state of Manchuko. The need for further resources induced the Japanese leaders to embark upon one of their greater strategic errors, the 1937 invasion of China. Ironically this venture, so successful at first, taught the Japanese air forces the very lessons that ultimately proved fatal at the political, strategic and tactical levels.

An Unperceived Problem
The early successes also prevented recognition of just how harmful was the rivalry of the Imperial Japanese Army Air Force (IJAAF) and the Imperial Japanese Naval Air Force. It ranged from the absurdity of not sharing technical information on aircraft being developed for both services to the ultimate travesty of Japanese army radar stations not informing their Navy counterparts about incoming American air raids. The competition began at Imperial General Headquarters and existed at every level until the final day of the war.

This bitter contentiousness was abetted by the effect their respective tutors had on their cultures. The IJAAF, taught by the French and later influenced by the Luftwaffe, concentrated on the indirect support of ground troops. The IJNAF, taught by the British, adopted a more strategic outlook, one influenced by the naval tradition that the fleet with the longest range guns and torpedoes had the advantage. The IJNAF thus assumed the greater share of offensive duties in China where suitable targets were often many miles deep in Chinese territory. It established bases in China from which its long range bombers could operate against the interior. Flying a majority of the missions, especially those which garnered useful publicity for propaganda, strengthened the IJNAF’s position in the budgetary battles.

Like other navies at the time, the Japanese navy was largely controlled by big-gun battleship admirals. They believed that Japan, in the spirit of the Battle of Tushima, would achieve its destiny with a victorious fleet action in Japanese waters against the United States Navy. Eventually, however, some of those leaders, influenced by the more flexible Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, saw how well air power had worked in China and began to demand that long range aircraft become the tip of Japan’s sword. Further, the IJNAF believed that with long range air power, it was conceivable that Japan could acquire its most needed natural resource, oil, by conquests in Southeast Asia. (The Japanese Army would reluctantly acquiesce in this, after receiving a bloody nose in its border conflicts with the Soviet Union.)

Japanese aeronautical engineers strove to meet the IJNAF challenge, trying to balance large bomb loads, armament, armor, fuel and structural strength against speed, altitude and range requirements. The engineers were called on to design aircraft that would meet a new basic tenet of Japanese military philosophy. In it, all future wars were to be short, sharp and victorious, with the Japanese doing all the shooting and bombing. To achieve this, the Japanese air forces wanted aircraft with great speed and range. Bombers were to have large bomb loads, while fighters were to be supremely maneuverable. The engineers achieved these goals, but only by designing aircraft without armor, self-sealing tanks and redundant structural integrity.

Through 1938, the military experience in China, seemed to validate this design philosophy. Despite several instances of determined opposition by the Chinese air force and its Soviet cohorts, the Japanese established an air superiority that permitted them to bomb key targets almost at will. The introduction of excellent aircraft such as the Mitsubishi GM3 bomber and the Mitsubishi A5M fighter (later codenamed Nell and Claude respectively) reinforced this thinking. The IJNAF made the world’s headlines bombing Chinese cities in operations conducted by as many as ninety aircraft over long distances of hundreds of rugged territory.

These and other Japanese aircraft performed so well in great part because they were flown by highly trained crews seasoned by almost daily combat experience. They were backed up by equally well-trained ground crews. This combination of great planes and great crews shaped Japanese thinking about the type and size of the air forces it would need to attack the United States. The Japanese leaders now believed that a major war could be won by a small number of superior aircraft flown by superb crews. From this followed the requirements for aircraft selection, production quantities and pilot training standards, and these in turn paved the way for the failure of Japanese air power in World War II. Perhaps still blinded by the concept of a victorious fleet action in local waters against the Untied States, the leaders did not realize that airplanes alone were not enough, and that air bases, air crews and maintenance personnel were equally essential.

The Japanese leaders decided that an annual production of about 5,000 aircraft designed for offensive operations was sufficient. The superb crews were to be obtained by Spartan training standards that bordered on the sadistic. In his memoirs, the great Japanese ace Saburo Sakai wrote with barely contained emotion about the excessive discipline of pilot training in the IJNAF. He notes that in his pilot training class of about 1,750, only 100 graduated. He also noted that despite being a leading ace with scores of missions, he was not a commissioned offer, and so could be treated as a servant by a new second lieutenant without combat experience. .

By 1939, Japanese ingenuity produced several aircraft which confirmed and enhanced previous planning. These modern types were equal or superior to their foreign counterparts and included the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter, Mitsubishi G4M bomber, Aichi D3A dive bomber, and Nakajima B5N torpedo plane (later respectively the Zeke, Betty, Val and Nan.)

The Zero was for several years the premier carrier fighter in the world. Possessed of reasonable speed (345 mph) and armament (two 20-mm cannon and two machine guns) was extremely maneuverable and had a fantastic range. Without external tanks, it range exceeded 1,000 miles. After its operational debut in 1940, the stellar performance of the Zero caused a further conceptual shift. Instead of Navy fighters being primarily concerned with fleet air defense, preserving the carriers, they were now seen as far-reaching offensive weapons. Their mission was expanded to include destroying enemy air defenses and strafing ships to suppress anti-aircraft fire. The Zero was what would today be called the “silver bullet” of Japanese air power. Its superior performance and its superior pilots seemed to mean that only a relative few would be necessary to defeat any enemy’s air force.

Germany’s victories in 1940 had greatly weakened the European hold on their colonies in Southeast Asia. By the fall of 1941, the Japanese, pressed by their lack of natural resources and American sanctions on imports, decided to seize the oil rich territories they had coveted for so long. The geopolitical factors grew in importance. With Great Britain savaged by German aircraft and submarines, the Japanese discounted its ability to react in the Pacific. Even far more important, Germany seemed to be on the point of disposing of the Soviet Union, relieving the Japanese army of its greatest fear—a Russian invasion of its puppet state, Manchuko.

These misapprehensions stemmed from basic failures within the Imperial Japanese Headquarters that included bad intelligence, the provincial thinking of the military leaders and their inexplicable inability to learn from their experiences in the field. While they had overcome Chinese opposition, they had nonetheless suffered heavy losses from fighters, flak, and the inevitable mishaps inherent in the conduct of extreme-range operations

The Japanese leaders, uninhibited by their inability to defeat China, decided to add the United States, Great Britain, the Netherlands and Australia to their enemy list. They were willing to go to war with a total of about of 3,300 first line aircraft and a pilot pool of about 6,000, of whom some 900 were experts. They hoped this force, so tiny by later war standards, would inflict the decisive defeat would force a demoralized United States to negotiate a peace. Japan would then control of the resources of the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.”

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was executed with great skill and daring on the part of is aircrews. For the next six months, one Japanese victory followed another to the extent that what was called the “victory disease” inflamed Japanese thinking. The American people did not react as planned, however, and slowly but inexorably, the industrial might of the United States responded in a way undreamed of by all but a few of the Japanese leaders.

Over the next four years, Japan slowly increased the number of aircraft it produced, rising to from about 5,000 in 1941 to just over 28,000 in 1944. Japan’s total aircraft production from 1941 through 1945 was about 66,000, compared to over 300,000 by the United States in the same period.

The expansion of the number of aircraft available for the field was never matched by pilot training with the result that the quality of Japanese pilots declined markedly after 1942. Even more important, the Japanese were never able to establish a realistic logistic and maintenance system to keep more aircraft available for action. A 1940 demand from the field that pilot training be expanded to graduate 15,000 per year was ignored. The Japanese kept their experienced pilots combat continuously, instead of using them to train a large reserve of competent pilots. The fatal attrition of expert pilots in combat made it impossible ever to establish an adequate training program.

In contrast, the United States’s huge pilot training program was continually upgraded by the rotation of combat pilots into instructor position. The Americans entered combat with hundreds of hours of training, many of them in operational aircraft. Japanese pilot training time fell off drastically until at the end of the war pilots might enter combat with less than 100 hours flying time, and only a few in their combat type.

Given that air dominance is even more important to win wars than ever before, we might learn at least two things from the Japanese mistakes highlighted here. The first is that while quality is important in establishing air dominance, one cannot discount quantity, particularly over long periods of time. The second is that while a “silver bullet” air force of a minimum number of superb fighters and bombers, manned by superb crews, might be adequate today, there is no way to what the potential strength of still undetermined enemies might be in a decade

2 responses to “Beware the Silver Bullet

  1. As we continue to see, the Americans continue to stay ahead of other countries in air power because they allow commercial businesses to fight for lucrative government contracts which drives competition and innovation. We also have hundreds of airplane training and helicopter flight training schools, so there is a demand to fly.

    • I agree with your general sentiments, but we are not continuing to stay ahead of other countries in air power because we are steadfastly refusing to use airpower in its classical sense. We are deluded into thinking we can spend eight to one hundred million high tech dollars invested in drones and PGM to kill individuals (who definitely earned the right to be killed) but refuse to use airpower as an essential element of diplomacy. The Cold War never became a Hot War because the leaders of the Soviet Union knew that they themselves, not just their military or their civilian population, would be killed if they made a first strike. They didn’t do so. Our present sad state has come about as a result of two insidious phrases. The first is “political correctness” which is sapping our nation; the second is “avoid collateral damage” which makes a mockery of airpower. Thank God we have an industry that continues to advance and innovate, and may the Heavens protect us from a government planning to use “sequestraton” (the correct term would be “castration”) to destroy our armed services.

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